Here Comes Santa Claus
by James Killough
The moment I fell in love with my creative partner Rain Li was in the café of the Tate Britain museum when we were doing a location scout for our film Losing Her. We were talking about The Business and she said, in that eminently imitable Chinese version of a cockney accent, “I don’t know why everyone take film so seriously, yeah?”
Little cartoon hearts could be seen exploding around my head.
In between takes on the set the other day, I was reminded by an actor of one of my great lessons about ego and humility in The Business. It goes without saying that filmmaking is where the big boys play, the high rollers table at the casino, the ones ready to lose millions on a roll of the dice, and probably will. I often compare it to thoroughbred horseracing. The stakes are high, the divas are nutty, the horses are extra skittish, and the mafia is all over the joint.
I have a production designer friend named Patrizia von Brandenstein, a woman who looks just like her name, who won an Oscar for her sets for Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Patrizia reminds me of an American version of the opera singer Bianca Castafiore from the comic series Tintin, which Steven Spielberg is turning into a movie using performance capture animation. Frankly, from the trailer it looks iffy, but Spielberg is the Grand Maestro of Maestros in this thoroughbred, skittish business, so at the very least it will serve some purpose filling in the long space on a long flight.
Patrizia is not just operatic in her sensibilities, which is why she tends to design lush, grand movies, but she also does this thing when she’s thinking and absorbing a creative concept: she takes a deep breath as if she’s about to belt an aria, and then utters her pronouncement.
Back in 1998, when she was doing the sets for Forman’s Man On The Moon, starring Jim Carrey as comedian Andy Kaufman, I had dinner in West Hollywood with Patrizia and her husband Stuart Wurtzel, likewise a production designer, but usually for smaller Woody Allen films. Midway through dinner she drew a deep breath through her nose and said, “I wish you could see my sets. I’m recreating Carnegie Hall in a wonderful old theater downtown. It’s when Andy fulfilled his lifelong ambition and rented out the Hall to do a Christmas special.”
“I would love to see them.”
“It’s a closed set, though. I wonder how I can get you on.”
I didn’t think anything of it until a couple of days later when I got a call from some second second assistant director. “Ms. Von Brandenstein would like you to come to the set,” and she gave me a time and place, where I should park my car, etcetera.
This was going to be fun, I thought. I would hang around with Patrizia and the legendary Milos, who won the Oscar for directing Jack Nicholson in my favorite film of his, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We would have lunch, I would dazzle everyone with my wit, maybe even get a chance to script Forman’s next film. I would also reconnect with producer Mike Hausman, who had taken me to lunch a couple of years earlier with a view to producing my Hamlet-in-India project. I thought he was such a kick in the pants, such the old-school Jewish mensch.
“What the fuck do you need me to produce your film for?” he asked over gobbles of Chinese orange chicken at a Sichuan place on Broadway. “I know nothing about India. You do. What do you want some producer sitting around on the phone in a hotel room not doin’ shit? Produce it yourself.” Which planted the seed for my eventually becoming a producer, rather than just a namby-pamby writer sitting around wondering why nobody was sitting around hotel rooms on the phone producing my work for me. Grow a set as large as mine, he was saying to me, then you’ll get somewhere.
Truth be known, I was sort of scared of having lunch with Milos Forman, I was too in awe of him. But I was really looking forward to seeing Mike again. I have all the time in the world for him. A former first assistant director, he is completely hands-on with every production he does. I noticed that even on Brokeback Mountain, which he also produced, he gets a first AD credit as well.
The first AD is in charge of the set. A film production of any kind is very like a ship. The director is the captain, the first AD is the first mate. First ADs can be strict martinets, often screamers, which I personally can’t stand. I like my first ADs to be as efficient, smooth and quiet as Swiss watches.
When I showed up downtown LA at the appointed address, I found it was one of three vast parking lots being used to accommodate the cast of thousands that were going to populate the makeshift Carnegie Hall. I also found out to my extreme horror that I was going to be one of those extras. It was the only way Patrizia could get me on the set.
“James Killough,” confirmed the PA at the entrance to the lot. “Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Park anywhere to the left and report to hair and makeup, and then wardrobe.”
“There must be some mistake …” I muttered. “I’m here to have lunch with …”
There was no mistake. Okay, I thought, this means we’ll do the scene and then I’ll have lunch with Milos, Patrizia and Mike Hausman, and of course Jim Carrey, afterwards.
Not only was I outfitted to be a Mormon Tabernacle Choir member circa 1978, sideburns and all, we were all stacked in a pyramid formation as a giant Christmas Tree on stage. This was outrageous. Not only was Patrizia showing me her set, she was making me a part of it. I was beet red with embarrassment through makeup and wardrobe. I had never been “below-the-line” in my entire career. I had always been a writer, well “above-the-line.”
Another explanation: above-the-line refers to a production budget term for the main cast, the producers, the director and the writers. Everyone else is below-the-line. There is a certain amount of snobbery involved with that, and back then I had it in spades. Being an extra was just… never mind.
The scene I was in was the following: Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman would come out, dance with the Rockettes, gesture to the curtain behind him, which would open, revealing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Tree with me on the third tier, hoping I wouldn’t be seen on camera. We would belt out “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and then a sleigh suspended from the ceiling would fly down with a real Santa throwing gifts and confetti into the crowd. To make things worse, this was a two-day commitment on order to preserve continuity. To get the scene right, with six cameras rolling, they needed two days to shoot this. Frankly, if I had been directing I could have knocked it off in one, but I’m not Milos Forman.
Over the two days of doing this tedious “Here Comes Santa Claus” nonsense, I grew increasingly bored. Milos Forman was nothing more than a voice from a control booth where he could watch the video assist from all six cameras. He would boom out instructions in that Slavic accent, and Jim Carrey would snap back at him, calling him “Gepetto,” the puppet master from Pinocchio. There was no lunch with Forman, Carrey, Patrizia and Mike Hausman. I was all alone at craft catering dressed like some Mormon schlub from the late 70s. I was too aloof to make friends with the desperate wannabe actors who were talking about trying to get into SAG and all of that other crap wannabe actors in Hollywood talk about. I was a first class passenger accidentally stuck in steerage on some ship hauling immigrants to the Promised Land, and most would never get there. And I had to sing that fucking poppy Christmas tune over and over and over. Nightmare.
On the second day, I was making some headway with chatting up the cute PA. I mentioned that I had seen Patrizia swanning around the theater, but not Mike Hausman. “Of course Mike’s here,” the cute PA replied. “He’s playing Santa Claus.”
So that was it. Once of the best producers in The Business was having a blast floating down from the ceiling in a sleigh throwing confetti and toys over and over for two days. And here I was, some pissant writer, who had never come close to making Hausman’s Ragtime, or Cuckoo’s Nest, or Amadeus, much less Brokeback Mountain, grumbling over the fact I was part of what could have been a great Milos Forman classic. I should have been so lucky.
The next time the curtain opened, I belted out “Here Comes Santa Claus,” with all of the gusto I could muster. I was as gleeful as a Mormon could be. And never again took myself, or film, so seriously again.